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Are we in for one of the ‘dirtiest’ election campaigns ever? | Adam Boulton

todayJanuary 28, 2024

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Are we in for one of the ‘dirtiest’ election campaigns ever? | Adam Boulton

There was general agreement at the Institute for Government’s Annual conference last week that it would be a good thing for Britain if this year’s election campaign is not “dirty”.

This highfalutin notion was shot down in seconds with equally universal assumption by the assembled politicians and policy wonks that “that is not going to happen”.

A clean campaign would concentrate on policies and competence.

A dirty campaign is built around slurs, distortions and untruths, with those competing for votes slinging mud at each other.

A lot of factors, headed by booming social media, are coming together to suggest that this year we may see one of the dirtiest election campaigns ever.

The IFG delegates had to wait less than a day for their forebodings to come true. There might have been a lot to talk about at Prime Minister’s Questions.

The Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) bill struggling through parliament. The world order threatened by ongoing conflicts in Ukraine, Gaza, Israel and the Red Sea.

Record NHS waiting lists are the public’s number one concern. The chancellor is contemplating two rounds of tax cuts.

But no, the leader of the opposition chose to exchange personal insults, much of it based on dubious content circulating on smartphones.

Rishi Sunak  during PMQs

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Rishi Sunak responds to Sir Keir Starmer during PMQs. Pic: Sky News Screengrab

Fair’s fair, Sir Keir Starmer started it this time, but Rishi Sunak had a well-stocked pile to fling back.

Starmer opened up referring to a couple of brief unofficial clips posted online. One showing the prime minister “collapsing in laughter when he was asked by a member of the public about the NHS waiting lists”.

The other “accidentally record[ing] a candid video for Nigel Farage“.

Sunak, who seldom passes up a chance to brand Starmer as a lefty London lawyer, shot back that he is “the man who takes the knee, who wanted to abolish the monarchy, and who still does not know what a woman is”.

Previously Starmer “chose to represent a now-proscribed terrorist group” Hizb ut-Tahrir, and “served” Jeremy Corbyn.

Keir Starmer during PMQs

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Sir Keir Starmer during PMQs. Pic: Sky News Screengrab

Both men knew that the insults they were sticking on each other were essentially unjustified distortions of the other, but that was what they chose to put on the national agenda at the most scrutinized moment of the political week.

Starmer has explicitly changed his party and his previous positions.

Under scrutiny, he has clarified and explained each of the specific acts detailed. It is a core principle of British justice that advocates are not surrogates for their clients.

Sunak was not laughing at the people he was talking to and spoke to them properly after the end of the clip.

The alleged greeting to Farage was repurposing an online meme which allows any name, in this case “Nigel”, to be put into the prime minister’s mouth.

Neither Sunak nor Starmer are classic alpha males.

Sunak comes across as a whiny or petulant geek, Starmer seems hesitant, overcautious and inclined to blame others.

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Starmer pushes PM on childcare. Pic: Sky News Screengrab

Perhaps this is why they feel the need to overcompensate by acting rough and tough. Sir Ed Davey, the Liberal Democrat leader, also has his moments of fabricated machismo.

The leaders set the tone and their petulance has been picked up in the campaigning efforts of their underlings and supporters.

Prime minister Boris Johnson took up an online distortion that Starmer had failed, when he was director of public prosecutions, to take action against Jimmy Savile.

This prompted the senior Downing Street aide Munira Mirza to resign protesting that this was “not the normal cut and thrust of politics”.

It soon would be. Labour cited Johnson’s attack as justification for their later personalised digital poster attacks on Rishi Sunak including the smear that he “doesn’t think adults convicted of sexually abusing children should go to prison”.

Labour attack ad on Rishi Sunak

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Labour published an attack advert on social media targeting Rishi Sunak last year. Pic: Labour/X

Since then Keir Starmer has gone out of his way not to back down or apologise; following the code of the playground he promises to punch back hard against any attacks.

At the start of election year he rejected an invitation from Beth Rigby to take up Michelle Obama’s famous recommendation: “When they go low, we go high”.

Instead, he told Sky News’ political editor: “If they want to go with fire, we will meet their fire with fire”.

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‘We will meet their fire with fire’

Donald Trump crafts insults – Lyin’ Ted, Sleepy Joe, Ron DeSanctimonious – with cruel genius and gets away with fabulations.

There is only one Trump; honest political strivers should not try to copy him.

Opinion polls after personalised attacks usually show that support for both sides goes down, though more for the target than the attacker.

This should give all the party leaders something to think about, especially since public respect for politicians is at a record low and a low or differential turnout could be a major factor.

Starmer needs to mobilise enthusiasm for his leadership, not dent it. Sunak’s standing is already low and doesn’t want to drop further.

Labour's latest Sunak attack ad

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Labour’s attack advert targeting Sunak was published on the Conservative Home website earlier this year. Pic: Conservative Home

This government raised spending limits for the election campaign to £35m. Much of it will go on direct messaging to voters – which is harder to police than election broadcasts and billboards.

During the 2019 campaign, the Conservatives spent over a million on Facebook, much of it on messages disparaging Jeremy Corbyn.

Both Labour and Conservatives are already spending over a million a month on Facebook advertising.

Then there is what partisan supporters choose to put up on social media independently.

Labour has already advised its supporters to use humour.

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Even without explicitly taking sides humourists such as Coldwar Steve and Trumpton, liked and retweeted, can make some political weather, often by lowering the tone.

Political propagandising is much more equal opportunity than it used to be. Anyone can post.

On the other hand, the newspapers and other mainstream media no longer have a near monopoly.

In 1997 when The Sun ran its famous “Nightmare on Kinnock Street” and “Will the Last Person to Leave Britain Please Turn Off the Lights” attacks on Labour, the paper’s circulation was 3.9 million.

The Conservative Party display their new poster campaign by driving them past the Houses of Parliament in central London.

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The Conservative Party’s poster campaign attacking Gordon Brown during the 2010 election. Pic: PA

Read more from Sky News:
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Post-Brexit trade talks with Canada paused amid row over beef and cheese

The last official figures released were 1.2 million in 2020.

Poster launches used to be major events in political campaigning, but who would bother with them today?

There are some worthwhile lessons to be learned from the classics.

The Saatchi brothers are celebrated for their attacking of billboards: Labour isn’t working, Labour’s tax bombshell and Labour’s Policy on Arms (showing a combat soldier surrendering hands up).

Each of these were masterpieces of wit and effort compared to the Conservatives’ adoption of the BBC newsreader caught giving the finger for “Labour when you ask for their plans to tackle immigration”.

The Saatchis’ best work riffed with precision on policy rather than personal insults.

When the Conservatives tried that with their “New Labour, New Danger” demon eyes poster it misfired; it was difficult to convincingly portray Blair as a devil when other Conservative sources were attacking him as an inexperienced Bambi.

The Conservative Central Office unveiled their latest pre-election campaign weapon, a poster depicting Tony Blair with demonic eyes.

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The Conservative Central Office’s 1996 poster depicting Tony Blair with demonic eyes. Pic: Conservative Central Office

Labour boobed depicting Cameron as a cute bicycling chameleon.

The most effective attacks at PMQs cut directly to the political issues facing the voters, rather than scuffling around in their past record for something compromising.

Mrs Thatcher struck directly and seemingly spontaneously at Michael Foot: “Afraid of an election is he? Afraid? Frightened? Frit?”.

“Weak, weak, weak,” Tony Blair gutted John Major. “You were the future once.”

Sunak, Starmer and their teams of advisors have yet to produce anything as authentic.

Something which would crystallise the political moment.

Instead, they and we can look forward to a year in the dirt as they scrabble around trying to find it.

Written by: Newsroom

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